That's right, president. At 29.
Within two years of returning to the company where, as a kid, he lent a hand each summer, Leighton found himself running what his father, Richard, had started in 1987.
This time, it wasn't the economy that dictated his career path - it was a dreadful diagnosis. The skin cancer would spread rapidly, claiming Richard Leighton's life on Sept. 1, 2010.
His son would report for work at 5 the next morning to fulfill a promise made to his father during their dinnertime visits in the weeks preceding his death.
"I promised ... I wouldn't destroy what he created, and would take it to the level he wouldn't have expected," Leighton recalled.
He accomplished that in less than two years, the economy again his impetus.
Leighton, an only child, inherited Office Basics at a time when workplaces were looking for ways to cut expenses. Supply closets everywhere were under scrutiny and enduring more than mere paper cuts.
"I started looking how to diversify," Leighton said.
He settled on an acquisition strategy that included buying, in December 2010, Pontiac Paper, a small family-owned business in Folcroft that provided janitorial and package supplies. The move enabled Office Basics to expand its product offerings.
The real game-changer came in April 2011 with the purchase of another family business, BF Molz Inc. in Moorestown. That would launch Office Basics into a specialty the elder Leighton didn't much care for - commercial furniture - and provide entry into the New Jersey office-supply market.
BF Molz had been serving that market since Bert Molz founded the company in the back of his uncle's printing shop in Philadelphia in 1976 and moved it shortly afterward to the other side of the Delaware River.
With the Molz purchase, Office Basics gained a New Jersey showroom and warehouse, 35 employees with a furniture expertise that Office Basics' workforce of 125 didn't have, and access to an established customer base of close to 1,000 and $20 million in sales.
For BF Molz, now trading under its new owner's name, it meant access to Office Basics' expertise in office supplies, its vast inventory and warehouse, and a delivery fleet of 53 trucks.
"It really helped to bring greater value to our office-supply company," said Dean Molz, 46, who owned the company along with a sister, Donna Walsh, at the time of the sale.
"Culturally, we have an awful lot in common," Dean Molz said of himself and Leighton. "We're both second-generation business owners. ... He and I both learned what it means to go out and have to do for yourself and figure out the right ways and the wrong ways and just get the job done."
What particularly impressed him about Leighton was his "chutzpah," Molz said. "He's very courageous, and he's willing to take calculated risks."
Not without a reasonable amount of nervousness, Leighton admitted.
"There's risk in all of those," he said of the acquisitions, including one in Morgantown, Pa., to help expand a presence Office Basics already had in central Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley. "What you're really buying is the customer relationships. You hope they will stick."
Already, the furniture division is showing promising returns. Office Basics furnished the just-opened Einstein Medical Center Montgomery in East Norriton and, before that, the new Virtua Voorhees hospital.
"It's really given us a great resumé in that market," Leighton said. "It's ... a growing market."
He would not disclose what Office Basics has spent on acquisitions or anything else about its financials other than to say that "we're more than halfway" toward reaching his goal of more than $120 million in sales.
Though workplace change is often tough to digest, the fresh direction at Office Basics has proved comforting to customer-service manager Donna Jackman, who has been with the company since its inception.
"With us acquiring companies and building our workforce, it just makes everyone feel that much more secure," Jackman said.
Adding to that sense of security, she said, is Leighton himself, whose father insisted he work in virtually every job over the years - including sweeping floors, stocking shelves, delivering orders.
"He wasn't handing him anything on a silver platter," Jackman said of her old boss and her new one.
While enthusiastic about the opportunities furniture is affording Office Basics, Leighton said he does not want it to overtake the office-supplies division.
"There's a percent I don't want to go above because the furniture market is very, very rocky," he said without divulging his cutoff point.
His father wasn't keen on the furniture business for that very reason, worrying that a bad experience with an inferior desk or chair might cause office-supply customers to abandon Office Basics.
What would Richard Leighton think of his son's decision to make the kind of advance into the office-furniture market he has?
"He would hopefully be proud," John Leighton said. "Not only of the success of the company, but taking some risks to build a better company."
John Leighton talks about his efforts to grow his family's office-supply business after his father died of skin cancer. See video at www.philly.com/business
Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.